In Britain, during the period of so-called social democratic consensus following the Second World War (CCCS 1981), all but a small minority of children were educated in state schools maintained by democratically elected local education authorities (LEAs). From the 1940s until the mid-1970s, one of the emphases of social democratic policy was on state intervention to ensure access and entitlement to a standard model of education for all, together with a degree of positive discrimination in order to enable disadvantaged groups to take advantage of it.
For the neo-liberal politicians who have dominated educational policy making in Britain since the 1980s, however, social affairs are best organised according to the general principle of consumer sovereignty (Ashworth et al. 1988), which holds that individuals are the best judges of their own needs and wants, and of what is in their best interests. The preference for introducing market mechanisms into education is derived partly from a predilection for freedom of choice as a good in itself. But it is also grounded in the belief that competition produces improvements in the quality of services on offer which in turn enhances the wealth producing potential of the economy, thereby bringing about gains for the least well-off as well as for the socially advantaged.
In so far as it is accepted at all that markets have losers as well as winners, the provision of a minimum safety net rather than universal benefits is seen as the best way to protect the weak without removing incentives or creating a universal dependency culture. But it is also sometimes claimed that the market will actually enhance social justice even for the least well-off, by placing real choice in the hands of those trapped in neighbourhood comprehensives in the inner city rather than, as before, having a system where only the wealthy or the knowing could get choice of school by moving house even if they could not afford a private school.